Education Opinion

WA Governor Gregoire Proposes New P-20 Department of Education, Leaving Out State Superintendent

By Justin Baeder — January 06, 2011 1 min read
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Washington governor Christine Gregoire just announced her plan for creating a single agency responsible for P-20 education in the state. Ostensibly a cost-saving and strategy integration move, this reorganization would make the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction report to a governor-appointed Secretary of Education, who would oversee all state education agencies.

From her policy brief:

Our students deserve a world-class education at every step in the process -- in preschool, elementary through high school, an apprenticeship program or college. Their future and personal success rely on it. Our economy and way of life depend on it. But we do not have an education system today. In fact, our multiple education entities—including early learning, kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education agencies—spend too much time trying to coordinate work and connect policies. Priorities are often not shared. Because of this, students are not at the center of every decision made and every action taken.

Throughout the brief, the word “system” appears in bold, indicating the governor’s focus on P-20 integration. Currently, only Early Learning reports directly to the governor in Washington.

Randy Dorn, the current Superintendent of Public Instruction, released a statement signaling his hurt feelings and skepticism that the plan is viable, characterizing the move as a power grab:

In a press conference this morning, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed creating a state Department of Education that would oversee the many "silos" that make up our entire education system, from early learning to K-12 to higher education. I'm pleased that the Governor is focused on education, and I have worked closely with her on many issues. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to streamline some of the processes. I'm concerned, first of all, that I heard the proposal the same time as the media did. The conversation I had with the Governor this morning did not reflect what she said in her press conference. And in fact, members of the media were given more specific information than I was given by the Governor. More than that, though, is that this isn't a new idea. I've been a legislator, and every governor I've known has wanted more power. They've tried to abolish offices. That is not in our Constitution. Ours is direct election by the citizens of this great state. The governor can create any staff position she wants. Her proposal, however, would require the State Superintendent to report to a new Secretary of Education. I am an elected official: my boss is the people of this state, not the Governor. That is state law, explicit in Article III of the State Constitution. Would the Governor also suggest that the other elected officials report to a Governor-appointed official? What troubles me most, though, is that this feels like a smokescreen. The most pressing issue we face is lack of funding. In February 2009, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that basic education is underfunded in the state - and that ruling was based on financial data from two years before. Since then, education has been cut even further. Consolidating commissions and eliminating agencies isn't a bad idea, but it takes time and energy away from much more pressing issues. The Governor and I agree on one thing: our future depends on the education of all of our students.

Clearly this move by Governor Gregoire signals a lack of respect for Superintendent Dorn. However, Dorn has had trouble garnering respect from anyone since his DUI arrest last March. Dorn repeatedly apologized for this serious lapse in judgment, but has apparently not convinced the governor that he is the right person to oversee education in the state of Washington.

Despite her statement to the Seattle Times that the SPI would report to the Secretary of Education, the org chart in Gregoire’s policy brief (see last page) conspicuously lacks a Superintendent of Public Instruction.

At any rate, it’s intriguing to consider a P-20 state Department of Education. It’s not clear what effect such a restructuring would have on K-12; the bulk of the language in Gregoire’s policy brief seems to focus on the state universities, with the subtext “do more with less.” Clearly, though, this proposal is an effort to bring public education under the governor’s direct authority, and to bring greater accountability to higher education institutions.

I’m all for greater coordination and integration, but much remains to be seen about how this proposal might make its way into reality.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.